Student safety requires security presence

Like other old, fancy colleges, Williams has a long history of saying wonderful things about itself. We do this for many reasons; among them, and not inconsequentially, is our belief that such things are in fact true. One of the things we regularly say about ourselves is that because we are a community ruled by individual responsibility (often represented by the Honor Code), student life outside the classroom (and off the courts and playing fields) is largely “self-governed.” I often say this myself.

It is of course only partly true. Saying plainly in what ways it is not true is the best way I have of explaining why I think that the slightly more visible presence that Security has assumed this year is not only a necessary thing but also a good thing.

Williams is certainly “self-governed” in comparison with other places. I know of no other institution where the hand of authority is so light in the residential part of the College. Elsewhere, you almost invariably encounter officers with guns on their belts and a mandate to arrest students: in the official term, Security Officers are “deputized.” Jean Thorndike has bravely resisted this trend and will continue to do so. In addition to this police presence, all other institutions that I know about have some sort of administrative staff living in the dorms. We have resisted this as well. That this part is true provides a good context for the new ways that Security is doing its work this year. Even with the “walk-throughs,” administrative oversight of residential life at Williams remains decidedly minimal, and student life at Williams is far more autonomous than it is at almost all other institutions.

Of course we do not live up to our ideal – living up to ideals, as the modern world has remembered, is very hard and very rare – and the ways in which we do not are important. While we have a system that looks a bit like governance, we all realize that our “house governance system” does not in fact really structure, guide or advise residential life, nor is it capable of responding to the difficult issues that come up now and again in our houses. As we so plainly admitted to ourselves during the debate over the substance-free proposal last year, House Officers, with some few exceptions, plan parties. “Self-governance” and its partner, “independence,” should not – cannot – mean “every person looks after themselves.” A system of self-governance has ways of explaining how people should and should not behave that people can agree on, and it has ways of addressing instances when people do not behave as they should, without referring to some outside agency or authority. Residential life at Williams is plainly not self-governing in this way. I have previously said the same thing about the Honor System. I think I am right.

Though most members of the community are not particularly aware of it, bad things happen at Williams, and that is why someone must look after people if the house governance system will not. This is the fundamental job of our Security Officers: to protect the health and safety of the community. We do not often talk openly about the bad things that happen here, which is natural enough, but I think that because of this, students may not have the proper context in which to evaluate the work that Security does. I don’t want to frighten you (well, perhaps I do, just a little), but here is a partial list of things that have happened since the beginning of September: destruction of property; theft; substance abuse of various sorts; dangerous abuse of alcohol; abuse of prescription drugs; health crises of various sorts, including injuries; harassment (both physical and verbal); sexual assault; physical assault; psychotic breakdowns; power outages; initiation practices involving hard drinking and floods. In many instances, these incidents involve people making mistakes or doing bad things to themselves. Some of them involve people doing bad things to other people. And this is a partial list.

I have an obligation under the law to make a good faith effort at ensuring that our students obey the law; I have a moral obligation to the members of our community to ensure that life here is at least tolerable, and that bad situations have some good chance of being addressed. Knowing what is happening is the very first step in any of this, and Security tries to do that, 24 hours a day. This is part of the reason why Security is more visible this year. I simply did not feel comfortable in letting things go in the ways that we have been recently. Williams students do not like to talk about the bad things that happen and will report such things only under great duress – and then frequently are harassed or criticized for doing so.

So someone else must look in on things. In creating new protocols for Officers, and asking them to walk through College spaces every once in a while, in spite of the inevitable initial flaws or mistakes, I do not think we have compromised either traditional Williams culture or the individual rights of students. It is a change, of course, and it is not hard for me to understand why people are irritated. And I would be remiss if I did not note that many other people are grateful, and happy to see the Officers when they appear.

I would be delighted if Security did not need to keep track of things relatively closely. I would be delighted if students really looked after the state of the community in some clear, accountable and understandable way. We come amazingly close to doing this, and so I don’t want to leave the impression that we do worse in this way than other institutions. I think that in spite of the lack of governance we do about the same as other places. But we should do better. The CUL and the Housing Committee are ready to work on the issue of self-governance this year, and I am very happy about that. I feel confident that we can accomplish some real improvements. But until we have a better way, the hard job of calling people to account will fall largely to the people on my staff, and to Security in particular.